It's Test Tiiiiiime!!!

Thinking “Outside the Bubble” on the All-Important Standardized Tests

By Alex Kajitani

It’s that time again.  Time to start training your students to fill in the bubbles that matter most.  Like it or not, for most teachers, especially those of us who teach at-promise students, those bubbles determine in large part the public’s perceptions of our school and district, our students’ opinions of themselves, and our school site’s administrators (who may change, for better or worse, once test results come in).  Now, if “Race to the Top” has its way, those test scores will soon also determine whether or not we are “highly effective” teachers, regardless of where and whom we teach. 

Perhaps you see standardized test scores as truly indicative of your students’ capabilities, and yours.   Or perhaps you see them as another reason why “high-performing” schools will continue to flourish, while other schools continue to languish.  Or, like most great teachers I know, perhaps you see the tests as a necessary nuisance, and while you know they don’t tell the whole story, you do see the value in having the students try their best, and attain the highest scores they can.  If nothing else, you realize that, given the current state of affairs, not preparing your students to achieve on these tests could negatively impact their future, your school’s future, and even your own.

So, this month I offer you three “out-of-the-bubble” strategies to help you focus on this practical picture of standardized test time, and to go further than just having your students “use the answers to work backwards” to prepare for the all-important tests ahead.

1)  Remember: It’s not about perfection – it’s about improvement.

In California, our students take the California Standards Test, or CST.  I usually begin my “CST Review” about a month before the tests begin, and I start by showing my students their results from last year.  For my at-promise students, this usually means a short black line, compared to the much longer line showing how “the rest of the state” performed.  Instead of having them focus on their line, I have them use a highlighter to highlight the area that is open for them to improve

Our state’s students are ranked as either far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient, or advanced.  While most at-promise students fall into one of the first two categories, what often goes unrealized is that in order to move up one or two levels, the students usually only need to answer a few more questions correctly.  Some only missed the next level by a question or two.  I then prompt them with the following questions:

  1. Think about how much smarter you are right now than you were last year at this time.  Can you answer (insert number) more questions correctly than you did last year?  Most students will nod confidently, and some will be easily motivated by how easily they could move up a level or two.
  2. What can you begin doing now to make this happen?  Begin by making a list that includes everything from getting some more sleep to looking over tests they have taken throughout the year and reviewing what they previously missed. 

“Give your students the opportunity to see the big picture beyond these test bubbles, as you do, and give them credit in their ability to be motivated by their futures.” – Alex Kajitani

When your students (and you) realize that you can focus on just a small step of improvement, rather than looking at how large the gap may be between your classes and their “high-performing” counterparts, the tests become less daunting and you can focus on what needs to be done.

2)  Think the tests are racially biased or favor the affluent?  Then get real and talk to your students about it.

Most states’ department of education websites make test results available by school, district, income level, and race – often including research comparisons and commentary on how African-American, Latino and Native American students perform, compared to their White and Asian-American counterparts, as well as results from poor neighborhoods compared to affluent ones.  Use these numbers as both eye-openers and motivators for your at-promise students. 

If possible, find a school in a poor neighborhood that has stellar test scores (or something equally inspiring to your demographic).  Then, once you’ve compiled this information, share it with your students.  Don’t be intimidated to open up the discussion about why you, or your students, believe certain ethnicities score lower or higher on the tests.  Keep the conversation respectful but real.  Encourage them to rise above the low test scores that have plagued their school, their neighborhood, or their ethnicity. 

If possible, and if time allows, take this conversation a step further by showing statistics on unemployment by race, as well as high school graduation and college entrance rates, and lifetime earnings.  Discuss how and why academic performance is measured, and tie it in with success throughout life.  Give your students the opportunity to see the big picture beyond these test bubbles, as you do, and give them credit in their ability to be motivated by their futures.

3)  Focus on celebration, not intimidation.

I have seen first-hand the positive results when we take a positive, even celebratory, approach to testing with at-promise students.  As “The Rappin’ Mathematician,” several years ago I created a song called “Test Tiiiiiime!” to help get our school motivated to take the test.  Using the song, our school’s video club actually made a rap video using the students as the stars, and we played it on our closed-circuit television each morning – the whole school was so pumped up for testing it was amazing, and our test results reflected it.  A teacher from another school told me that while they didn’t make a video, their principal played the song over the loudspeaker each morning, and even some of the administrators were caught breakdancing in the halls!  Feel free to download this song, free of charge, here (insert link to download Test Tiiiiime!!!), and make this year’s tests something that are cause for celebration, not intimidation.

What exactly is there to celebrate about testing, you ask?  As an 8th grade math teacher, one of my biggest problems with getting our school’s test results back is that by the time they are released, my students have already moved on to another school, and a completely different set of students now sit in front of me.  Perhaps we can’t immediately reward our students for their scores right after they take the tests; however, we can reward the following:
1. Perfect attendance during testing days.
2. Not finishing too quickly, and checking over all of their answers.
3. Not leaving any answers blank

Finally, there are no limits to who should be involved in the testing process.  Make sure everyone on your campus knows about, and celebrates, the testing period.  As students purchase their lunch, have the cafeteria staff wish them good luck.  Have the maintenance staff talking to students about it, and non-core teachers should be celebrating their importance as well.  Our middle school always thanks our elementary feeder schools for their hard work, and the local high school always thanks us.

In closing, we may never love the emphasis on standardized test scores in our current system, but we can at least make the best of things – and not give our at-promise students one more disadvantage to overcome – by taking a positive and strategic approach to preparing them for test success.  Here’s wishing you and your school, district and community a happy and fruitful testing season.  “What time is it?  It’s Test Tiiiiime!!!”

Alex Kajitani, known around the country as “The Rappin’ Mathematician,” is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year (and a Top 4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year).  He has won numerous other teaching awards and speaks to groups nationwide.  His company, Math Raps, has also won the RAPSA “Making a Difference” Award.  Visit www.MathRaps.com to check out some of his rap songs!